Setback in Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program in a ‘Gulf of Mistrust’


european-unione28099s-foreign-policy-chief-catherine-ashton-iranTalks on Iran’s disputed nuclear program descended into mistrust and frustration in Moscow on Tuesday, casting doubt on whether the two sides can negotiate a way out of the escalating crisis.

After five draining sessions, the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the differences between Iran and the group of six world powers involved in the talks here remained so significant that negotiators did not commit to another high-level meeting. Instead, technical experts from both sides will convene early next month to determine whether there are grounds for further high-level contact.

The talks between Iran and the six powers – Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany – faced daunting obstacles from the outset. Iran has signaled some willingness to scale down its uranium enrichment, a process that can produce nuclear fuel but also the components of a nuclear bomb, and is being squeezed by new rounds of economic sanctions that will take effect on July 1. The sanctions threaten to isolate Tehran further from world oil markets and the international banking system.

But Iran’s central demand was a weighty one. It wants international recognition that it has the right to enrich uranium for what it claims are peaceful purposes. Western powers say they suspect Iran’s intentions are to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, and domestic politics in both the United States and Iran all but excluded the chance that either side would accept big concessions.

“Assumptions of an easy breakthrough were premature because of the gulf of mistrust,” said Vali R. Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

“It was a success that talks have gone this far,” Mr. Nasr said. “The problem is that Iran is stuck in its position: it has to give up substantial things – trump cards – for talks to proceed substantively, and it needs serious concessions in return.” But the six powers, he said, are “not ready to give them.”

Negotiators from the so-called P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) said there was some heartening progress in Moscow, where Iranian negotiators for the first time delivered a detailed response to a set of proposals first presented to them at a meeting last month in Baghdad. A senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks, said this had happened “for the first time in many years.”

The set of proposals, known in diplomatic shorthand as “stop, shut, ship,” asked Iran to curtail enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, export its stockpile of the material and shut the underground facility where much of it is made. In response, the world powers said they would supply parts for old American civilian aircraft and fuel for an Iranian nuclear reactor, with the promise of more sanctions relief in return for specific Iranian actions over time.

Iran’s response was a stream of criticism, delivered in exhaustive detail on Monday afternoon. At midday on Tuesday, the world powers put forward a scaled-down plan for future negotiations on technical matters. The afternoon and evening were spent wrangling over what those talks would cover, with Iran pushing for discussion of political matters.

“We are going to see whether Iran is ready to make the choices it needs to make,” the American official said. “We are not going to get trapped in a process that we think is not a productive one, so we’re taking this step by step. The sanctions will be increasing, and we told the Iranians that there will be more pressure coming if this proceeds forward.”

Saeed Jalili, the lead Iranian negotiator, said, “The characteristics of this talk, they were more serious, more realistic and way beyond just expressing the viewpoints and positions.”

But he reiterated Iran’s basic position that its enrichment of uranium is nonnegotiable, and that “there is no reason or excuse to have doubt regarding the peaceful aims of Iran’s nuclear program.”

Russian officials, as the conference’s hosts, met twice with the head of the Iranian delegation on Tuesday, in an evident attempt to keep the process from derailing.

There had been little expectation heading into the Moscow talks of a concession by either side. But after three high-level meetings led by Ms. Ashton and Mr. Jalili – in Istanbul in April, Baghdad last month and now Moscow – Iran experts said the inability of the negotiators to come up with something substantive was a setback.

“There is certainly a danger that the talks will collapse,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at the RAND Corporation, a research group in Washington. He said some of the language from the Iranians reflected their own frustration with the talks, raising the possibility that “at some point Iran may conclude that the talks are fruitless and that it won’t get what it wants.”

At the same time, he said, the six powers want an Iranian compromise on uranium enrichment that will assuage doubts about its intentions.

“The sequencing appears to be a big problem here,” Mr. Nader said. “I wouldn’t say the talks are pointless – they should be continued. But I also fear the negotiations are on shaky ground.”

The lack of substantive progress in Moscow also appeared to reflect Iran’s willingness to endure punishing economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, with more onerous measures looming within weeks, that Obama administration officials have been hoping would force the Iranians to be more flexible.

According to a statement by Ms. Ashton, both sides agreed to further clarifications at the Istanbul meeting and technical studies of each other’s positions, to be followed by contacts between the deputies of Ms. Ashton and Mr. Jalili. After that, Ms. Ashton said in the statement, “I will then be directly in touch with Dr. Jalili about prospects for a future meeting at the political level.”

It was clear at the outset on Monday that the room for agreement was small. Iran has concentrated its efforts on an acknowledgment that it has the right under international treaties to enrich uranium. In exchange, Iran – which has repeatedly asserted that its nuclear program is peaceful – has signaled it may be willing to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, considered a technical step short of bomb grade.

The six powers have demanded that Iran abide by prior Security Council resolutions to suspend all uranium enrichment. They also have demanded that the Iranians ship the 20 percent-enriched uranium out of the country and shut down an underground enrichment facility.

Israel, which considers Iran its most dangerous enemy, has warned that it may pre-emptively strike suspected Iranian nuclear targets if it decides that the talks are not making progress, an action that many fear would lead to a new Middle East war. That possibility is one of the chief underlying motivations for the P5+1 negotiators to make some progress.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}